Book Review: Pretending to Sleep

Foster, Monalisa. “Pretending to Sleep: A Communism Survivor’s Short Story.” (2020)

Short version – a very good introduction to Communism in Romania from a child’s point of view.

I’ve been looking for material on Communism and the Cold War that I can use in class, and that is appropriate for my students. Something about a place other than the USSR would also be good, just to show that the rest of the world behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t pretty. Enter this book, which I saw on Monalisa Foster’s web-site and a few other places.

It is a fictionalized account of Romania during Communism. It packs a lot into a short story, and although suitable for older kids (age 10 and up), would require a lot of explaining. Foster expects readers to know about the Young Pioneers, and why having a family member escape or flee out of Romania was so terrible. And why so many children were unwanted.

I’m familiar with some of the, ahem, charms of the Securitate, Romania’s state security force. Think the Stazi but without the charm. Foster shows this, all too clearly, through the casual sadism and brutality seen by a child. The author interjects herself on occasion, but does a very good job of holding back, keeping things in the perspective of her younger self.

The story is an excellent introduction to the evils of Communism for younger readers, if guided by adults. Older readers will note the understatement, and probably have to do a little digging. I suspect many people my age have forgotten the horrors of Romanian “orphanages,” warehouses for the babies demanded by the state but unwanted by their parents.

My one complaint is that the print edition is much shorter than it appears. A number of pages at the end are taken up with advertising for the author’s other works. I realize that the print-price has a floor, and that all of us in the writing business want to market, but this cuts back on classroom usability. The per-page cost is a touch steep when trying to sell the book to They Who Control the Budget. Edited to add: This is a classroom teacher problem, and is not the fault of the author. It should not dissuade general readers from seriously considering the book.

Will I use the book in the classroom? Quite possibly, but probably not this year (have to plan ahead). It is much more suitable for younger readers than some classics such as The Bridge at Andau or the short stories by Shokolov (about the Russian Civil war period). I’m grateful to Foster for telling the story, even if I do want to grab a clue-bat and take it to the person who inadvertently inspired the writing.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my personal use and received no remuneration from either the author or publisher for this review.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Pretending to Sleep

  1. I’ve been working on a thing whose critical backstory involves Romania in 1988, which point is not entirely AU* enough to skip the research.

    I’ve been looking at the fall of Communism in Romania on wikipedia for some of that research. The guy who came out on top, and oversaw the implementation of democracy, is now being criticized as involved in suspect acts immediately prior to the fall. Involvement with Securitate in suppressing riots in the months prior, IIRC. I have a feeling I’m going to need more about that area and period, and also that I have a couple of sympathetic characters who were once Securitate.

    Any suggestions on resources?

    I’m also finding I need dates of the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and when the rumored South African nuclear program was shut down and covered up. Mandela took office in 1994, so I’m guessing that was after 1988, not before?

    *I change some of the presidents after 41. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to ignore the Corona virus.

    • The South African scenario is very complex. I was there, and part of the transition process, and I know of the nuclear program’s background and developments there; but it’s far too much to put into a comment, or even a blog article of its own. If you want to discuss it with me, my e-mail address is in my blog profile, and we can take it from there.

  2. It is a chilling account, and true to life at the time… Well worth reading for those who have not actually experienced the larger world and true communism…

  3. I had slightly better stories from some others who had experienced this, from Hungary and East Germany. A year later, and they still made the reflexive look for an informer before speaking blandly.

    • The Poles I’ve talked to who were alive during the Cold War said that they considered themselves very fortunate – they had information access but not stuff. East Germans and Hungarians had stuff but no information. And Romanians didn’t have anything. Albania – the Poles implied the Albanians were on the dark side of the Moon.

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